Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Delicious envy

Jealousy is a terrible emotion, filling you with bitter, resentful thoughts. Jealousy can make you detest the people who do the most good, or create the most beauty. Jealousy demands that we be centre stage, the best, the most important and cannot tolerate anyone who surpasses us. It sucks the joy out of all encounters with anything better than we could do ourselves. From what I’ve seen of other people going this way, it is a terrible approach to life and the person it reliably hurts the most is the person experiencing the jealousy.

We do get some say over our emotions. Not the most raw and immediate feelings, but how we process and develop them. Those choices, over time, shape us.

So, you see something that is better than anything you have ever done. It might be better than anything you could ever do. It is possible to simply enjoy it on its own terms and not feel diminished by it. Equally, you can look at whatever surpasses you, and see clearly your falling short, and celebrate it. Not being able to do something means there is more to learn and explore, more to do and enjoy. The feelings of difference between what you can do and what you can see do not have to lead to jealousy. They can become envy, and with practice, envy is an experience a person can enjoy.

Envy is jealousy minus the entitlement. If you don’t imagine that these things should have been yours instead, then you are not diminished by the achievements of others. What they do can instead raise you up by enabling you to see greater possibility than before. You can chaff against someone outclassing you without having to resent them for it, or think ill of them.

Competitive culture encourages jealousy. When we think in terms of winners and losers. When we think attention and rewards are limited, scarce even, and that what goes to one means less for yourself. Then we may feel other people’s success as threatening to us. When we think collaboratively, we can see other people’s success as part of our good. We pass each other building blocks to enable more good stuff to happen.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking at what anyone else has or does and feeling the distance between you and them. Feeling the distance is a natural emotional response. It’s what we then choose to do as we recognise the pang that matters. Do we dwell darkly on it and plot revenge? Or do we cheer with delight for the person who has just outclassed us while trying to figure out if we can catch up at all? When you respond with envy, not jealousy, it can be a delightful experience.

Advertisements

Sharing a sacred space

We’re in school holidays at the moment, and so I have had the luxury of not having to set the alarm clock. Usually I’m up and working, and parenting before seven. On the plus side it gives me a solid working morning and I tend to get a fair bit done. However, I’d much rather wake naturally. I tend to wake with the sun, so at this point in the year I’m surfacing before the alarm would have gone off, and then I’m just lying there for a while.

Back when I was working on Pagan Dreaming, I thought a lot about the possibilities of bed as sacred space. For this to be so, your bed must be a place of comfort, safety and joy. Of course for many people who experience abuse inside their own homes – adults and children alike – the bed can become a focus of misery, not a place of safety. When you’re living with abuse, if can be very hard to see what’s going on. Abusers use shame, blame, mind games, criticism and lies to confuse their victims. So let me mention that if your bed is not a safe place, there are some very serious things wrong in your life.

There is profound luxury for me in these current, small lie ins. An extra hour here and there, warm, relaxed and relishing the company of the man who shares the bed with me. It is a gentle intimacy, rich with affection and good for the soul. But, there have also been times in my past when I’ve woken in beds other than this one, tense with anxiety and hurting with my whole being.

Care and respect are the basis of any healthy relationship. If we are kind to each other, if we take into account each other’s needs and feelings and check in with each other about that regularly, it is not difficult to have a good relationship. And yet, so many relationships are blighted by one person’s need to have control of the other person. It is usually men controlling women, and it is a state of affairs backed up by centuries of cultural norms and ideas about marriage as ownership. Fear of what the other person might do if we don’t control them can turn us into monsters. You can’t have a good relationship with someone who is afraid of you.

Lying next to someone when there’s nothing to prove. When there are no points to score, and there’s no fear of being judged, or blamed. Lying next to each other because it’s inherently lovely to do that, sharing space and skin and togetherness. What shocks me about this, sometimes, is how blessedly easy and uncomplicated it is. How little effort it takes to have this beautiful time. And in turn, how deeply unnatural it is to de-sanctify this sacred space with power games, bullying, and physical cruelty.


Night Waking

It may well be that babies start out entirely natural in their waking patterns, and learn to sleep through the night. It might well be that once upon a time we’d all have been waking up in the night. The night prayers of monasteries are one piece of evidence for this, and there’s some interesting stuff in Don Quixote about how many sleeps a person needs. Pre-industrialisation, we probably slept like babies.

I’ve experienced night waking over the last few years. Sometimes it happens when I’ve consistently slept well for some time and can afford to be awake. Sometimes it feels more like insomnia. In recent weeks, I’ve found that Tom often surfaces when I do, and that makes for a very different experience.

When writing about this sort of stuff for Pagan Dreaming, I observed that, waking in the night I could think things that weren’t available to me at other times. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore – I think that’s simply because my mental health has improved and I can think whatever I need to think whenever I need to think it. Lying awake in the darkness can be strange and lonely, but lying awake companionably is a whole other thing. There may be few words and little activity, but there’s scope for a deep sense of communion here. I wonder how the monks felt with their night time prayers, with little light to guide them. Did that feel like isolation, or intimacy? The same experience can be a chore for some, and touched with numinousness for others.

I’m very conscious that my sleeping time is dictated by the needs of the day. I seldom have the luxury of being able to stay up late, or be awake in the night, and then able to offset it by sleeping in. I can’t be led by my sleeping impulses. I have to respond to the alarm clock. Adventures in night consciousness are always accompanied by an awareness of having to really pay for it later.

We’ve become so involved with clock time, work time, school time. To be a modern human is to have a schedule, and dire consequences if you don’t stick to it. Our whole culture depends on this, and we arrange our lives in confidence around the expectation that everyone else will be in the right place at the right time, like a well oiled machine. Excerpt we aren’t well oiled machines, and I wish we had more space to let mystery come to us in the darkness.


You have to love yourself

The oft repeated ‘wisdom’ that if you can’t love yourself, you can’t love anyone else enrages me. It’s wrong, it simplifies something really complicated, and adds pressure to people who were already not feeling good. Lack of self love goes with lack of self esteem and confidence. It’s a likely consequence of abuse – and especially of growing up in an abusive context. The people most effected have likely spent chunks of their lives, if not their whole lives, being told they are worthless, not good enough, not able to do the things. And then some twat swans in with their meme and stabs you with it.

I’ve spent most of my life dealing with self-hatred. It has not been pretty. Alongside that, I loved wholeheartedly, intensely for the long term as a child, as a teen and as an adult. I do not find it difficult to love other people, places, creatures, books. I am not happy about being told that this isn’t real or happening – the implication of that whole suggestion that if you can’t love yourself, you can’t love anyone invalidates my experiences.

In the last few years I’ve managed to deal with the self-hatred and get to a place of mostly being ok with myself, mostly being able to accept myself and my limitations. This is not the same as self love. The idea of self love still leaves me feeling queasy and in danger. But, self-okayness means I’m not constantly beating myself up, and that’s liveable with and good enough. I have not noticed any changes at all around my capacity to love anyone else.

The person who cannot love themselves may find it hard to accept and trust love from other people. That has a huge impact on relationships. It is not easy (and I speak from experience here) to love someone who thinks they are awful. They may reject or resist you because they don’t know how to make room for what you feel. They may desperately need to be loved, but may not be able to let it in. They may love you in turn, but their inability to accept love and their own self loathing may lead them to sabotage the best things that come their way.

The person who cannot love themselves may have some really distorted relationships. They may feel most at ease when lavishing their love, energy, resources etc on someone who treats them with disdain. They may feel safest when not loved in return. It’s easy to stay in harmful relationships that will further damage your poor self esteem if you have such low expectations.

It takes a lot longer and a lot more effort to learn how to do relationships well, if you aren’t in a good relationship with yourself. It requires some really good people in your life who aren’t expecting you to just make them feel comfortable. People who pressure you towards self love will say they want to help, but it’s a basic refusal to accept you for who you are and where you are. That doesn’t build confidence or self esteem. If you have to fake things to be tolerated, the self-loathing will grow, hidden away, and get worse.

If you deal with someone who cannot love themselves, telling them to love themselves won’t save them. Having come at this from all angles, the answer is to love them anyway. Don’t ask them to change, accept them. Love them as best you can, and don’t take it personally when they don’t respond in more normal ways. If you can do that, and if they will let you, then you may eventually get them to a point where they can believe that you care for them, love them, value them. When they get there, they may be able to reassess themselves in light of your care.

Lack of self-love doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It will have been shaped by experience, or by perception of experience. It doesn’t change quickly, or on demand, or without something to change the story of the person who feels themselves unloveable.

You do not have to love yourself in order to love other people. But, if you can get to a place of being ok with yourself, comfortable enough in your own skin, not punishing yourself, that’s good enough. It makes everything else easier. Acceptance is key to healing this stuff, and people who don’t accept you are not actually helping you.


Illness, ambition and thwarting

I had a lot of plans for 2018. Some of them were bold and ambitious in their own right. More were about the trajectory I want to take. The things I want to lead on. The stuff I want to be more involved with. Mostly it’s not gone to plan.

Back in November 2017 we did a week in a gallery and a night at Stroud book festival and I had what was probably bronchitis. It took me weeks to recover, and we didn’t go to Steampunks in Space because I wasn’t equal to it. And I’ve never really got back on top of things since then. Nasty colds, the flu, beaten up by the menopause, leading to bouts of insomnia, gut fails and now some kind of virus that really has it in for my glands. It’s been relentless. Also a lot of low level depression and anxiety.

So as the months have progressed, I’ve had to put aside all kinds of plots and schemes. I’ve not enjoyed letting them go, it’s been frustrating. Many of them can be revisited, or I can try for them next year, instead, but even so. There are things I wanted to be doing now, and I’m not. I feel that if I’d been able to get on with things, other unforeseen possibilities would have resulted.

This of course is the thing about unforeseen consequences. There is no way of knowing how this would have played out if I’d been able to go for it on all fronts. I have no reason to think it would have all gone my way. I could be looking at burnout now instead of feeling thwarted. There is no knowing. I’ve done the best I could with the resources I’ve had, and that’s all there ever is.

One of the things this time spent being relentlessly ill has given me, is serious space for reflection. I’ve taken long, hard looks at what I want and why. Things have emerged from this that maybe wouldn’t have occurred to me otherwise. Whether they turn out to be better things, I will never know.

I could choose to give up in face of this – on some or all of the ideas I had. I could choose to ignore the setbacks and push ahead with everything, regardless. I could make it a life lesson about ego and ambition and nature teaching me a stern lesson. I could make it a story about heroically overcoming setbacks. The story we choose to tell will shape our actions and results – sometimes more than any other aspect of a situation.

On the whole I don’t have the energy or inclination for making big stories out of being thwarted, not at the moment. This is also a choice with implications of its own.


Identity, change and consistency

I can tell you a story of my life in terms of change. What I was not able to do as a child that I can do now. What I was able to do in my teens that I can’t do now – all those late night things, and coping without sleep. I can tell you stories of constancy, how things from my childhood are still with me, how things that I consider integral to myself have been with me a long time. All of those stories would be true. It’s like observing light as a wave or a particle.

Every experience I have lived through has influenced me in some way. Every opportunity, every setback, every person I’ve interacted with. I’ve changed, year on year. Some of that change was good, and some of it has taken me years to unpick and recover from. As those experiences shape and shift me, I behave differently, react differently, feel differently and that in turn forms part of how the world seems to me. My own behaviour and responses shape the world I inhabit – for years now I’ve been getting faster at removing myself from drama. If I find someone exhausting to deal with to no good purpose, I step away. I say yes, emphatically, to activities and people that make me happy. As a consequence my life is calmer and richer than ever before. I feel more secure.

At any moment, who we are can seem like a substantial thing. Pressure to change is often threatening. There’s good reason to be wary of anything or anyone that demands you change against your will. Being asked or told to be what you are not is seldom good news. However, the opportunity to grow, stretch and change is usually a blessing. Given room to be more than we were, we can evolve on our own terms. We can flourish. That kind of change often comes slowly and feels more natural.

We are all full of potential and possibility. If life gives us scope to explore those possibilities, we can grow into identities that feel more real than where we started from. We are born into contexts of stories, history, opportunity or lack thereof. We are born into other people’s ideas about who we should be. Given time, space and opportunity we may find we aren’t the person we started out as. That can be a great relief, a shedding of unwanted and restrictive skin. Each choice we make can set us on a new path – and there is always scope to come back and change direction.

It’s when you’re changing that you can most easily see what doesn’t shift. We may label those qualities as virtues and vices, styles of being. “I’m a kind person with a strong work ethic.” “I’m easy come, easy go.” “I’ve got a short temper, I’m wild and passionate” and so forth. These are interesting things, but I think fairly superficial aspects of self. I don’t have a language to talk about my sense of inner self, any more than I have language to talk about the essence of a flame or a river.

I know there are some traditions that identify the core self as absence, emptiness. I don’t experience it that way. For all that I change and flicker, grow taller or smaller, changing shape in response to breezes, the quality of my flame remains flame. Or whatever it actually is. If I explore something new, I soon know what is for me and what is not. I know what fits me and what does not. I know what I respond to. It’s not something I can express in words, although I can dance it, and sometimes I can find tunes that reflect it.


Humble, or humbled

When people announce themselves as being humble, I’m always put in mind of Uriah Heap (the Dickens character, not the band). Uriah Heap claims humbleness, he plays at humbleness as a way to mask his ambition. It’s a lot like claiming to be funny, or spiritual, or clever – when you have to tell people what your innate qualities are, the odds are you’re ascribing qualities to yourself that you do not possess.

Humble is a Christian virtue that goes with being meek and modest. It’s a virtue that the wealthy particularly appreciate in the poor – we should know our place, accept it and shut up about it. We should not imagine we deserve any better. Humbleness is about having no great sense of self worth, or self importance.

Being humbled can mean being taken down a peg or two. To humble someone else is to crush their pride, put them in their place (or the place you think they merit). This is how dictionaries tend to define being humbled, and it’s not an attractive proposition.

However, I’ve also seen and experienced it working in another way, and it’s this other possibility that I find particularly interesting. To be humbled by an experience that might have functioned as an ego boost for others. Being awarded, celebrated or picked out in some other way. Having the value of your work highlighted and put into context. Some people respond to this by feeling honoured, but also feeling humbled. There can be all kinds of reasons for this – not feeling you deserve it, or having done a small thing with big consequences. It can be deeply moving having someone tell you how what you did impacted on them.

It happens fairly frequently with the blog, that someone contacts me to say why a specific post really helped them. Usually I have not written the post for anyone. I don’t write them imagining they should all have the power to change someone’s life – I’d be too frightened to start, most mornings. I write about what I’ve got and I try to make it useful. If that turns out to be disproportionally useful, I feel like something has gone through me to the other person that was not wholly of my making. I feel like a delivery method for something bigger. I can’t own the effect. It’s the same when a song or a poem deeply affects someone else in an unexpected way, and it’s there as a possibility with all forms of creativity.

You make stuff and you hope it will have some kind of impact, but a part of how that impact happens is down to the person encountering what you made. When the work proves to have significant worth, it can be impossible for the creator to feel that as their own, and you end up with this strange emotional response where you are delighted by what’s happened, maybe surprised or even unnerved by it, and also humbled. Having an unexpected impact on someone else can be a little scary – you have an effect you didn’t really plan and don’t quite feel responsible for. It’s an experience that can give you power with one hand while taking it away with the other.

In spirituality, we find all kinds of opportunities to be humbled. To be awed by what’s bigger than us. To see the enormities of life and death, the vastness of everything else and the smallness of us. The bigger we are in our own minds, the less room we have for the sacred, the numinous, the world. Sometimes we need to recognise our smallness so that we can better appreciate how much bigger things outside us are. Anyone who can face the powerful forces of nature and not feel small, and humbled and put in perspective by that, is probably missing something. There’s nothing wrong with feeling small in the face of the wider world. It’s when it is required as a class status that there are problems.


Talking Down, or Lifting Up

There’s often a large verbal component to bullying and abuse. What is said is often key to keeping a victim silent. That may take the obvious form of threats – if you tell then there will be consequences. It can be more subtle. An ongoing rubbishing of a person’s feelings, needs, preferences, likes, values and so forth can really grind a person down. The more of it there is – the more people are involved, the longer the time frame, the more influential the bullies are, the more damage is taken. It can facilitate other kinds of abuse, if you’re too crushed to know it isn’t fair.

If the people you love (parents, partner, ‘friends’) tell you that you are silly and make a fuss, over react, are melodramatic, then you may start to question whether your responses to them are fair. It’s easier to assault a person who doesn’t trust their own judgement. If they call your favourite things stupid and worthless, you take damage. If they laugh at your clothes, or your cooking, or the music you like, it can all add up. Enough of this undermining knocks a person’s confidence and dents their self esteem. Eventually, confidence and self esteem can be destroyed by mockery and ridicule. Bullies will also try to isolate their victims so no alternative views are available. They may do this while saying they are the only one who really loves the victim, the only one who could understand them or put up with them.

This kind of damage is hard to recover from alone. It’s pretty much impossible to get over it without first getting away from it. A person needs the chance to hear something other than criticism and putdowns before they can rebuild a sense of self-worth. In the meantime, if I’m anything to go by then overthinking and paranoia can be issues. It is hard to hear a compliment when you’re waiting for the sting in its tail. It’s hard to trust someone who is building you up not to be setting you up for a fall. It takes years of safety to build a new normal. It takes multiple people telling all sorts of much more positive stories to undo the work of long term bullying.

There are people who default to uplifting. Who, given half a chance will compliment and encourage and gently prod you in the right direction. They are an antidote to the people who only belittle and knock down. People with the courage and care to keep uplifting even when the person they’re dealing with is too bruised to know what to do with it. People generous enough not to be put off when the frightened soft animal body they are dealing with reacts defensively and with fear.

I want to be that second sort of person. I realise that the key to this is not to take it personally when someone else flails. To learn how to make good decisions about what is intended to hurt, and what comes from a place of hurt is essential. I can’t afford to deal with people who intend to hurt me, but I can afford not to take things to heart that come from other people’s wounds. I’ve got this wrong in all kinds of ways, and there is nothing to do but learn and try to do better.

There will always be people who show up making helpful noises, but who have no desire to help. People who expect others to magically fix as soon as they step in and who are disappointed, even angry when it doesn’t go that way. Healing is slow and takes patience. Hearts and minds are slower to heal than bodies. For the people who were generous and patient enough with me to stick with my often brutal healing process, and not give up on me, I have enormous gratitude. It’s also taught me a lot about the good one person can do for another in the simple choice to lift them up rather than knocking them down.


When good things exhaust me

Good things are supposed to be… good. However, something it has taken me a long time to get my head round, is that if I’m burned out, or close to it, good things are just as problematic in some ways as slightly bad things. This, frankly, is annoying, but in learning how to see it coming I’ve been able to look after myself more effectively.

It’s easy to forget that good things also take energy. Good news, exciting developments, moments of joy, relief and the like all take energy. They take a lot more energy than just shuffling along in a non-descript state. Sometimes, good things even bring an adrenaline burst. If you’re an anxious person, then adrenaline means anxiety even when you know a good thing is happening. I was told by an entirely unhelpful person some years ago that I can’t tell the difference between excitement and anxiety. My head can, but for my body, there is no difference. It’s not a failing, or something to fix by trying harder it’s just what happens.

Good things require processing time. If I’m feeling a lot of emotions, I need time to work that through. It’s more obvious when the feels are all difficult, that self-care is in order. Intense good feelings need just as much processing time as difficult feelings. The high of something good can provide a lift, but if my energy is poor then on the far side of the happy peak, is a slide down into a low place. If I know the slide is coming, I can handle it better.

I’ve spent most of my life doing intense highs and lows. The only times I haven’t were when I was too depressed to do the highs in the first place. I’ve always believed that the lows were the price of the highs and chose to accept that as a trade-off. However, in recent years I’ve become more interested in exactly how my brain and body work, and it suggests something more complex is going on. I can have highs without an inevitable crash afterwards if my energy levels are generally good. I can navigate the aftermath of highs better if I give myself processing time.

Sometimes resting is enough for emotional processing. Sometimes I can sleep it off and let my unconscious, dreaming mind figure out all the things. Sometimes I can walk it off or bounce it off on the trampoline to get excess energy under control. However, when it’s a more complicated feeling, I need to dance, or sing, or play a musical instrument for a while. I think these help me most because they let me manifest how I’m feeling without having to get specific words on it. I can express emotions and embody them and settle them into me. Some emotions are big enough to have an impact on who I think I am and how I view my life as a whole. They take some processing. It’s better if I make time and space for them.


Contemplating hate

Hate isn’t an emotion we talk about much. Other people, of course, are haters, and using hate speech, but we don’t so often discuss the role hate may play in our own lives. It’s not a socially acceptable emotion, for the greater part. To express it, most people need to feel part of a group that’s doing the same, and to be sure they are justified. Hate doesn’t always come naturally or easily to us, we may have to work up to it and invest energy in feeling it.

Hate goes with revulsion and rejection. We save our hate for the things and people we feel are most unlike us, so it can be an emotion that does a lot to define us. Which if you end up hating haters, can get complicated!

Hating people is an exhausting business and can put them at the centre of your world. Focus too much on hating someone and you can end up more like them. You give them space in your mind and life, and the attention you pay to that hate is no great joy. However, hate is also a powerful emotion, and this is no doubt part of why we have a long history or cursing as part of magical traditions. We all like to think our hate is valid, justified and reasonable, and most of us won’t look at it too hard to make sure this is true.

I think we should hate oppression, exploitation and cruelty. We should hate needless suffering, environmental degradation, extinction, and the loss of beauty from the world. These things are not people, and I think that’s important too. There is a world of difference between hating what a person does, and hating a person. When you hate a person, it tends to be about things that are intrinsic to them – race, culture, religion, gender. It’s not about them changing, it is about having power over them, to control, limit and oppress. When you hate what a person does, there’s all the room for them to do something different, and that’s probably what you’re aiming for. If you are canny, you’ll hide the hate in order to try and persuade them to change.

Hate can be a great motivator. It is a recognition of absolute unacceptability. It can be a key part of defining our values and it is not an emotion a person needs to automatically feel ashamed of. We just have to remember that hating doesn’t entitle us to anything, nor does it prove much. How we express it, and why, is what will define us as people.